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Bracketing exposure

Bracketing is a form of photography insurance


The first exposure is acceptable, with detail in both shadow and highlight areas
The first exposure is acceptable, with detail in both shadow and highlight areas

Bracketing exposures involves taking more than one shot of the same scene, using different exposure settings. When you bracket, you take a photograph at the exposure setting you think is correct, then photograph the same subject again, slightly changing either the shutter speed setting or the aperture, usually by a half or one-stop less exposure, and then a half or one-stop more exposure.

A bracket of three refers to three exposures - for example: +1/2 stop, normal and -1/2 stop. A bracket of five might be +1 stop, +1/2 stop, normal, -1/2 stop and -1 stop.

The technique is called bracketing because the extra exposures “bracket” or fall on one side, then the other, of the main exposure.


Bracketing is one of the methods of exposure compensation, a photographic technique that enables you to vary the final exposure settings from those measured by the camera's light meter.

WHY BRACKET MY EXPOSURES?

The main reason is uncertainty that the primary (or most-likely to be accurate) exposure is correct. It often happens that a scene contains so many different lighting levels that you cannot be sure your camera’s meter reading is the best one. So, you shoot the same scene again, purposefully underexposing and then overexposing based on the original reading. Odds are that one image will be better exposed than the others.

Another reason to bracket, even when you are confident of the main exposure, is for “insurance” when the shot is an important one. No matter how confident you are in the first exposure, it just may pay to shoot the scene by bracketing in case the first one is actually not the best one. Who knows? Your meter may be slightly off that day. The film may be one you haven’t used before, and you want to be sure it will react as you expect. The lighting may have imperceptibly changed. Your studio lights may be getting old. There could be a hundred reasons why an exposure may not turn out as expected. So, you bracket for “insurance,” knowing that you will have at least one properly-exposed image.

A third reason is that bracketing allows you to use High Dynamic Range Imaging techniques to merge differently-exposed areas of a scene into one image that shows detail in all areas.

Stopping down by one f-stop shows more detail in the subject's hat, but darkens the scene, particularly the face
Stopping down by one f-stop shows more detail in the subject's hat, but darkens the scene, particularly the face

Opening up by one f-stop from the original setting overexposes the subject's hat and also begins to
Opening up by one f-stop from the original setting overexposes the subject's hat and also begins to "wash out" her face.

If your light meter is on the fritz, and you are shooting using exposures based on the Sunny 16 rule, wide bracketing of up to two stops on either side of the main exposure will most likely give you the assurance that at least one exposure will be correct. This is particularly so when there is a wide range of contrast in a scene (dark shadow and bright highlights), making precise exposure difficult.

BRACKETING CAN ALSO GIVE YOU A CHOICE OF ACCEPTABLE IMAGES

Since many backlit and sidelit scenes contain a wide variety of tones, often any one of four or five different exposures may actually be acceptable, depending on what you want the image to convey. Bracketing becomes a tool to provide you with a choice in cases like this, rather than a safeguard to ensure one properly-exposed image.


BRACKETING IS ESPECIALLY USEFUL IN LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY

Landscape lighting in particular can give photographers reason to bracket, because it often varies tremendously in areas of brightness and shadow. This is characteristic of most scenes that are brightly-illuminated by full sunshine; they also have areas of deep shadow. This is particularly true of scenes in winter, when light reflected off snow can "fool" a light meter.

Stopping down by two stops from the original exposure completely underexposes the subject's face
Stopping down by two stops from the original exposure completely underexposes the subject's face

Bracketing exposures can be very beneficial when photographing sunsets.
Bracketing exposures can be very beneficial when photographing sunsets.

Difficult scenes that have one distinct area of shadow and one of brightness (high contrast) may require bracketing to ensure that dark and light areas will have detail in both. Photographic film and digital memory cards cannot always record the full range, and the photographer may have to settle for shadow detail, sacrificing highlight detail, or vice-versa.

The main point is that bracketing will give the photographer a range of images to use in making that choice.

BRACKETING SUNSETS WHEN YOUR FULLY-AUTOMATIC CAMERA WON'T LET YOU

If you can't over-ride your fully-automatic camera's aperture/shutter speed controls, you can still bracket your exposures as long it has auto-exposure lock.

Click here on Photographing sunsets and look for the heading "Fool your fully-automatic camera - Make it bracket."


Further information...

Bracketing questions
Related topics...

Photographing sunsets

High Dynamic Range Imaging

Histograms and how they improve exposure